8 warning signs of a job scam

If you were hoping to get a flexible job or work-from-home position, there's never been a better time. The number of flexible and home-based jobs are soaring partly because companies have found that they can save money and hire better workers by giving them the ability to set their own hours or work remotely. Experts at job search sites report that they're seeing a massive rise in demand for everything from minimum-wage call center employees to part-time professionals, who can command generous salaries.

"The customer service and call-center segment is growing exponentially," says Christine Durst, co-founder of RatRaceRebellion.com. "We are also seeing a big rise in telecommuting positions from big insurance companies like United Heath, Aetna and Travelers."

Adds Sara Sutton Fell, founder of FlexJobs.com: "In the past, freelance jobs were typically associated with vertical careers such as writing, graphic design and software development, but now you can find freelance work in very surprising -- and often high-level -- roles, such as law and medicine."

A number of factors are fueling the trend. As older managers "who got sweaty palmed" about work from home arrangements retire, they're being replaced by a generation of workers more comfortable with flexible working arrangements, says Durst. Technology is also better, making communication -- and tracking employee availability and productivity -- far simpler than it was in the past. Companies also started experimenting with work-from-home arrangements as a way to prepare for disasters, such as terror attacks and severe weather, a few years ago and were surprised to discover that their telecommuters were every bit as productive as the office-based employees, she adds.

The arrangements also save companies money. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that companies save an average of $10,000 per employee on office space, absenteeism and reduced turnover when they allow workers to telecommute.

The bad news? For every one legitimate job that's available, there are at least 60 scams, experts contend.

And it's not just rubes who get conned. "I would like to say that reasonable people don't get caught, but that's not the case," Durst says. "Very smart people sometimes just have a moment of weakness."

Con artists also are getting sneakier and more skilled, says Fell. In one recent case, scammers managed to mimic the site of a real employer, for instance. Because the design and domain name was so similar to the real company site, job applicants had their guard down. When the bogus employer said new hires had to pay to get the company's work-at-home software, but would be reimbursed in their first paycheck, they shelled out $400 each. Needless to say, once the applicant paid up, neither the software nor the job materialized.

Other scammers bank on the applicant's forgetfulness, she adds. Realizing that many people apply for hundreds of jobs at a time, one email scam says: "Thank you for your application. You look like a qualified candidate. We need you to fill out this second set of applications to go to the next level." At this stage, applicants may not have any idea what the job is or who is inquiring, but they assume it's a response to their application. So they blindly click on a link in the email and provide potentially damaging personal data to the crook. Fell suggests that applicants never send out more than 10 resumes at a time, so they can keep track of all the places they've applied. If a response is coming from someone you can't identify, get more information before giving any.

"A number of the scams are really savvy and subtle," says Fell. "If you weren't paying close attention, it would be really easy to fall for them."

What are the warning signs of a flexible-work scam?

Few details: Real job postings include lots of detail about the actual job, the skills required and the title. If a job is short on requirements -- from hours and duties to the kind of skill required -- but talks repeatedly about the flexible nature of the work, consider it a red flag.

High pay/low effort: Listen to your gut, says Durst. Is somebody really going to be offering you easy work and a flexible schedule for high pay? Promising that their "guaranteed system" will make you a mint, if you act now? Get real. Unless your skill set is in such high demand that you'd get as much or more from a brick-and-mortar position, a work-at-home opportunity isn't either.

Burned applicants: Before applying for an online opportunity, type in the name of the company and "scam," suggests Fell. If it's one of the many bogus jobs, you'll quickly find web-based complaints. Durst also likes work-at-home forums, such as those at wahm.com and workplacelikehome.com. She suggests that anyone serious about finding good opportunities, register at these sites and just lurk in the forums to find out what other people are complaining about. "Hell hath no fury like a woman scammed," she says. "If somebody's been burned, they're going to tell you about it in no uncertain terms."

Upfront cash: Real jobs pay you. You don't pay the employer. Unless you're buying a franchise (and that's another story altogether), you should not have to pay to get paid. Don't be fooled by slick claims, testimonials or "guaranteed programs" designed to make you rich. If they're asking for money in advance to get a job, they're likely to be crooks. (This is distinct from job search sites, including FlexJobs, that charge for membership as a way of providing an advertising-free site.)

Too much information: Though most work-at-home scams seek cash payments from victims, a few appear to be going after the personal information that could make you a target of identity theft. You don't need to put your Social Security number or driver's license number on a job application. If the application asks for those identifying numbers or for a credit card number, back away.

Anonymous emails: If you're dealing with a human resources manager at a particular company, their email address should be coming from the company's domain name, not an anonymous domain like Gmail, Yahoo or AT&T.

Unprofessional communication: Job postings and email communications with multiple exclamation marks, misspellings and grammatical errors are also likely to be scams.

Over payments: One of the pervasive mystery shopper scams provides big up-front checks to mystery shoppers, who are instructed to deposit the money in their own bank accounts; use what they need to buy an inexpensive product and pay themselves a fee. The mystery shopper is then told to wire the remaining funds back to the "employer." In reality, the check the scammer gave you is a forgery. But it may be a good enough fake to keep your bank guessing past the point when banking rules require that they "provisionally" provide the funds. What does that mean? It will look like the check cleared. But the bank will debit your account later if the check is a fake -- and that could happen weeks after you've spent the money. You're on the hook for the cost of the purchased products, whatever amount you refunded to the crook, as well as any overdraft fees that the fake check caused.